EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was incorrectly attributed to Kathleen Parker yesterday.
With his USA Freedom Corps, President Bush has embarked the nation on a marvelous course while practically avoiding the crucial component and neglecting the group most in need of enlistment.
In his State of the Union, he said:
"My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years, 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime, to the service of your neighbors and your nation."
On a post-address booster tour, he said:
"At home, you fight evil with acts of goodness. You overcome the evil in society by doing something to help somebody."
These are, of course, noble sentiments - Bush's concept of compassionate conservatism. The president is establishing an umbrella group that will create the Citizen Corps and dramatically expand the Peace Corps, the Senior Corps, and the AmeriCorps. If Congress concurs, there will be $560 million in federal funding. There already are a Web site (usafreedomcorps.gov) and a toll-free number (1-877-USA-CORPS).
The president seeks to build on renewed national and civic pride in the wake of 9/11. He speaks about people helping protect against terrorist attacks and helping in future catastrophes. He speaks of getting retired doctors and nurses involved - and truckers and letter carriers. He talks about more teachers - and neighborhood watches, literacy counseling, after-school programs and teams building new housing for the poor.
Good stuff, but not good enough.
This is hardly the first presidential call to the citizens to serve their country. During the past 40 years, just about every president has encouraged volunteer service. Yet, during the same period, despite those appeals, the number of adults formally volunteering has remained steady at about 45 percent.
And perhaps, significantly, many charities are greeting the Bush push skeptically, saying that with contributions often down they cannot easily cope with an influx of well-intending volunteers - especially those with historically high rates of turnover and greatly fickle about the jobs they will and will not do.
What the president envisions makes for good rhetoric and commendable policy, but it fails hugely to address either the military or the young.
Yes indeed. The general civilian population hardly understands it and hardly appreciates what it does. Sociologists write about the widening gap - the growing disconnect - between the civilian and military sectors. (The same sociologists groan low about the dangerous degree of conservative Republicanism in the all-volunteer military.)
Further, the president and defense secretary talk about revamping the military - increasing its pay and benefits, upgrading and modernizing its weaponry, redefining its mission and enhancing its readiness. Top administration officials also talk about opening numerous new fronts in the protracted war against terror - which means, of course, deploying the military.
Some of this will help with military morale. Yet the principal area that must be addressed is manpower. In the military right now, those in certain subspecialties cannot get out at the conclusion of their commitments because there's no one to replace them. Again, because of undermanned billets, many are deploying more often and/or longer than stipulated. If we are a nation supposedly pulling together, it makes no sense for some to serve beyond their commitments while most serve not at all.
Yes again. Although the president's call to Americans to serve their country includes everyone 18 and over, most 18 to 21 year olds are thinking less about the nation than about themselves - getting a job, getting into college, finding a beer, and pursuing the opposite sex.
Some do enlist in the military; some go to a service academy or do ROTC or (later) OCS. But the vast majority hardly give the military a single serious thought. And, in them, the spirit of volunteerism is kept flickering - as opposed to burning hot.
What better time than now - this post-9/11 hour - to infuse the young with a sense of give-back? To de-emphasize the self? To restore public understanding about the military, and to address its profound manpower problems - both now and in the future?
Alas, calls for volunteer service often do not achieve the hoped-for results. Despite the insistences of William Buckley, and despite President Bush's volunteer Freedom Corps, compulsion may be the only way - with an emphasis not on those who have labored long in the nation's interests but on those who have not.
One year of universal service should be required for every male and female 18 to 23 not seriously handicapped physically or mentally. The year could be served either before college or upon the completion of (or withdrawal from) a four-year undergraduate program. All would begin with eight weeks of basic military training. The remaining 44 weeks could be spent in the military or in any number of community-service jobs.
Soon, with everyone doing it, universal service would become part of the national culture. The military finally would receive the appreciation it deserves and the manning it has to have. The populace would gain a renewed sense of service and selflessness. Just about all Americans would be assisted by the ever-rising generation. And the American spirit - the American eagle - would soar with vigor once more.
Call it the ultimate win-win situation.